NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK:
INTERVIEW WITH MATT BLESSO PINES’ NEWEST MEGA MOGUL
By Jeannie Lieberman
Andrew Kirtzman, 48, a journalist turned hotelier; Matt Blesso, 36, a real estate investor who in 2007 was named one of the top 100 bachelors in New York by Gotham magazine; and Seth Weissman, 26, an investment banker
“We are careful to preserve the great traditions of the Pines, not to make it more expensive and to change only the things that people were unsatisfied with … So far, all of our establishments have been crowded and everyone seems overwhelmingly happy with the changes..”
FISUN: what was your connection to the Pines before you decided to buy property there?
I have spent the last eight summers in Fire Island at my brother John’s share house in Kismet (www.chancehouse.com). I went to the Pines the first time while I was marathon training. It’s hard to take long runs on Fire Island but I would manage to find my way via Burma Road and the beach and noticed how the character changed as I ran through each town. While running through The Pines, beyond the obvious demographic, I noticed that the people walking around just seemed like they were having more fun than some of the people in other communities. It sort of feels like a big party all the time, or as others have noted, summer camp.
FISUN: what inspired you to create this real estate undertaking?
Seth Weissman and Andrew Kirtzman approached Blesso Properties with the opportunity to buy roughly 75% of the commercial real estate and businesses in the Pines. We bought two operating restaurants, a nightclub, a supermarket, a retail clothing store, a gym, a hotel, two houses and a 28’ boat. We paid $17 million in total and are spending approximately $4 million more in the redevelopment and repositioning.
Seth and Andrew had secured the deal very quietly and planned on overseeing operations but were looking for a development partner. Our company specializes in the creative redevelopment and repositioning of real estate. We look for projects where we can execute great design and this fit right into our wheelhouse. I couldn’t have asked for two better partners. Andrew has been a well-respected member of the Pines community for thirty years and currently runs the Madison Fire Island Pines Bed and Breakfast. Seth is a total dynamo and has strong ties to the younger Pines generation, which drives much of our business. It’s proved to be an incredibly synergistic partnership as we all come with unique strengths.
From a personal standpoint, I was attracted by the chance to be part of such a strong vibrant community steeped in tradition. From an investment standpoint, I saw the Pines community, with its discerning tastes, as the perfect audience for our design sensibility.
FISUN :how long did it take to get the financing in this economy
This was an acquisition with, as we say, a lot of hair on it. There are numerous factors, outside of the economy, that made it difficult to finance. First, It’s a seasonal asset which many lenders, even in good times, shy away from.
Second, there were multiple asset classes which made it difficult for some lenders to underwrite and value. The value of the properties is not derived only from real estate but also from operation businesses. We have a large food and beverage component, a retail component, an entertainment component and last but not least, a hospitality component. As a portfolio its incredibly complicated to get ones arms around. Despite these challenges, we managed to receive offers from multiple lenders.
But the overall challenge was not just securing financing, it was securing financing while planning the repositioning and operation of all of these businesses for this summer! We signed our contract at the beginning of this year and managed to understand all of these businesses and plan a complete renovation and repositioning of most of them for this summer. It was a herculean amount of work but we managed to get everything open by Memorial Day weekend. We are all tired but incredibly excited.
It wouldn’t have been possible if we had not gotten help from so many other great people. Walter Boss is handling our construction and he’s been amazing and working tirelessly. Jason Weiner and Eric Lemonides from the Almond Restaurant Group are now managing all of our food and beverage operations and we couldn’t be happier. Internationally recognized lighting and sound designer, Guy Smith has come in to remake the experience at the Pavilion, Blue Whale and Pool deck. These are just a few of the many other people have selflessly prioritized our needs for this summer to help us get open.
FISUN: did you buy out many properties or keep them under new management
We did not buy out any properties. If a third-party lease was in place, then we left the tenant in place. However, if the asset was run by the former owners, then we are either leasing them out to outside operators, operating the space ourselves or bringing in a partner with specific expertise. One of the big opportunities for us in this project was that the prior owners were trying to do too much and we felt we could generate far more revenues by leasing the spaces to others or bringing in other professionals to run many of these businesses for us.
FISUN:how has it changed the town
Ultimately, I think that question is for the community to answer. We are careful to preserve the great traditions of the Pines, not to make it more expensive and to change only the things that people were unsatisfied with.
FISUN: what is the response of the people who live/work there so far
The community has been an absolute pleasure to work with. I think they’ve been happy that we’ve reached out to them to get their input. We recognize that the community relies on us for essential services (and yes places to party as well). We in turn rely on the community for our livelihood. We view it as a partnership. We want to improve people’s experiences in the Pines because it feels good to us and it’s also good for our business.
FISun: how are you feeling facing your first season here
We are feeling great! We were able to do a significant amount of renovations in a very short time and the spaces look fantastic. Our casual restaurant which we’ve rebranded as Canteen seems to becoming the central meeting place that we imagined. People love the changes we’ve made to the Pavilion Tea Deck and we’re about to open our Pool Deck and start throwing regular pool parties with DJ’s, BBQ and other festivities. So far, all of our establishments have been crowded and everyone seems overwhelmingly happy with the changes.
see the links below for more information about the project: